What IS “Social Studies”?

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you look at your own discipline and can’t articulate what, exactly, the point of it is.

Yes, I know which topics social studies covers. History, civics, geography, world cultures, reading maps, traffic/pedestrian laws, etc. Socialstudies.org explains, “Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics…” etc. (I’m sure you did a lot of archaeology back in elementary school.)

But what is the point of lumping all of these things together? Why put psychology, geography, and law into the same book, and how on earth is that coordinated or systematic?

The points of some other school subjects are obvious. Reading and writing allow you to decode and encode information, a process that has massively expanded the human ability to learn and “remember” things by freeing us from the physical constraints of our personal memories. We can learn from men who lived a thousand years ago or a thousand miles away, and add our bit to the Great Conversation that stretches back to Homer and Moses.

Maths allow us to quantify and measure the world, from “How much do I owe the IRS this year?” to “Will this rocket land on the moon?” (It is also, like fiction, pleasurable for its own sake.) And science and engineering, of course, allow us to make and apply factual observations about the real world–everything from “Rocks accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8m/s^2” to “This bridge is going to collapse.”

But what is social studies? The question bugged me for months, until Napoleon Chagnon–or more accurately, the Yanomamo–provided an answer.

Chagnon is a anthropologist who carefully documented Yanomamo homicide and birth rates, and found that the Yanomamo men who had killed the most people went on to father the most children–providing evidence for natural selection pressures making the Yanomamo more violent and homicidal over time, and busting the “primitive peoples are all lovely egalitarians with no crime or murder” myth.

In an interview I read recently, Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo made of him, this random white guy who came to live in their village. Why was he there? Chagnon replied that they thought he had come:

“To learn how to be human.”

Sometimes we anthropologists lose the signal in the noise. We think our purpose is to document primitive tribes before they go extinct (and that is part of our purpose.) But the Yanomamo are correct: the real reason we come is to learn how to be human.

All of school has one purpose: to prepare the child for adulthood.

The point of social studies is prepare the child for full, adult membership in their society. You must learn the norms, morals, and laws of your society. The history and geography of your society. You learn not just “How a bill becomes a law” but why a bill becomes a law. If you are religious, your child will also learn about the history and moral teachings of their religion.

Most religions have some kind of ceremony that marks the beginning of religious adulthood. For example, many churches practice the rite of Confirmation, in which teens reaffirm their commitment to Christ and become full members of the congregation. Adult Baptism functions similarly in some denominations.

Judaism has the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah, whose implications are quite clearly articulated. When a child turns 13 (or in some cases, 12,) they are now expected to be moral actors, responsible for their own behavior. They now make their own decisions about following Jewish law, religious duties, and morality.

But there’s an upside: the teen is also now able to part of a minyan, the 10-person group required for (certain) Jewish prayers, Torah legal study; can marry*; and can testify before a Rabbinic court.

*Local laws still apply.

In short, the ceremony marks the child’s entry into the world of adults and full membership in their society. (Note: obviously 13 yr olds are not treated identically to 33 yr olds; there are other ceremonies that mark the path to maturity.)

Whatever your personal beliefs, the point of Social Studies is to prepare your child for full membership in society.

A society is not merely an aggregation of people who happen to live near each other and observe the same traffic laws (though that is important.) It is a coherent group that believes in itself, has a common culture, language, history, and even literature (often going back thousands of years) about its heroes, philosophy, and values.

To be part of society is to be part of that Great Conversation I referenced above.

But what exactly society is–and who is included in it–is a hotly debated question. Is America the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, or is it a deeply racist society built on slavery and genocide? As America’s citizens become more diverse, how do these newcomers fit into society? Should we expand the canon of Great Books to reflect our more diverse population? (If you’re not American, just substitute your own country.)

These debates can make finding good Social Studies resources tricky. Young students should not be lied to about their ancestors, but neither should they be subjected to a depressing litany of their ancestors’ sins. You cannot become a functional, contributing member of a society you’ve been taught to hate or be ashamed of.

Too often, I think, students are treated to a lop-sided curriculum in which their ancestors’ good deeds are held up as “universal” accomplishments while their sins are blamed on the group as a whole. The result is a notion that they “have no culture” or that their people have done nothing good for humanity and should be stricken from the Earth.

This is not how healthy societies socialize their children.

If you are using a pre-packaged curriculum, it should be reasonably easy to check whether the makers hold similar values as yourself. If you use a more free-form method (like I do,) it gets harder. For example, YouTube* is a great source for educational videos about all sorts of topics–math, grammar, exoplanets, etc.–so I tried looking up videos on American history. Some were good–and some were bad.

*Use sensible supervision

For example, here’s a video that looked good on the thumbnail, but turned out quite bad:

From the description:

In which John Green teaches you about the Wild, Wild, West, which as it turns out, wasn’t as wild as it seemed in the movies. When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner. The self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie in search of wandering calves, or the half-addled prospector who has broken from reality thanks to the solitude of his single-minded quest for gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations. Not cool, American pioneers.

Let’s work through this line by line. What is the author’s first priority: teaching you something new about the West, or telling you that the things you believe are wrong?

Do you think it would be a good idea to start a math lesson by proclaiming, “Hey kids, I bet you get a lot of math problems wrong”? No. Don’t start a social studies lesson that way, either.

There is no good reason to spend valuable time bringing up incorrect ideas simply because a child might hold them; you should always try to impart correct information and dispel incorrect ideas if the child actually holds them. Otherwise the child is left not with a foundation of solid knowledge, but with what they thought they knew in tatters, with very little to replace it.

Second, is the Western movie genre really so prominent these days that we must combat the pernicious lies of John Wayne and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know about you, but I worry more about my kids picking up myths from Pokemon than from a genre whose popularity dropped off a cliff sometime back in the 80s.

“We are conditioned to think of the loner.” Conditioned. Yes, this man thinks that you have been trained like a dog to salivate at the ringing of a Western-themed bell, the word “loner” popping into your head. The inclusion of random psychology terms where they don’t belong is pseudo-intellectual garbage.

Updated values chart!

The idea of the “loner” cowboy and prospector, even in their mythologized form, is closer to the reality than the picture he draws. On the scale of nations, the US is actually one of the world’s most indivdualist, currently outranked only by Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden.

Without individualism, you don’t get the notion of private property. In many non-Western societies, land, herds, and other wealth is held collectively by the family or clan, making it nearly impossible for one person (or nuclear family) to cash out his share, buy a wagon, and head West.

I have been reading Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, an ethnography of rural Appalachia published in 1913. Here is a bit from the introduction:

The Southern highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.

On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? …

The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American people, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsam, and the Great Smoky Mountains. …For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are a sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways. …

The mountaineers of the South are marked apart from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation. So true is this that they call all outsiders “furriners.” It matters not whether your descent be from Puritan or Cavalier, whether you come from Boston or Chicago, Savannah or New Orleans, in the mountains you are a “furriner.” A traveler, puzzled and scandalized at this, asked a native of the Cumberlands what he would call a “Dutchman or a Dago.” The fellow studied a bit and then replied: “Them’s the outlandish.” …

As a foretaste, in the three and a half miles crossing Little House and Big House mountains, one ascends 2,200 feet, descends 1,400, climbs again 1,600, and goes down 2,000 feet on the far side. Beyond lie steep and narrow ridges athwart the way, paralleling each other like waves at sea. Ten distinct mountain chains are scaled and descended in the next forty miles. …

The only roads follow the beds of tortuous and rock-strewn water courses, which may be nearly dry when you start out in the morning, but within an hour may be raging torrents. There are no bridges. One may ford a dozen times in a mile. A spring “tide” will stop all travel, even from neighbor to neighbor, for a day or two at a time. Buggies and carriages are unheard of. In many districts the only means of transportation is with saddlebags on horseback, or with a “tow sack” afoot. If the pedestrian tries a short-cut he will learn what the natives mean when they say: “Goin’ up, you can might’ nigh stand up straight and bite the ground; goin’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” …

Such difficulties of intercommunication are enough to explain the isolation of the mountaineers. In the more remote regions this loneliness reaches a degree almost unbelievable. Miss Ellen Semple, in a fine monograph published in[Pg 23] the Geographical Journal, of London, in 1901, gave us some examples:

“These Kentucky mountaineers are not only cut off from the outside world, but they are separated from each other. Each is confined to his own locality, and finds his little world within a radius of a few miles from his cabin. There are many men in these mountains who have never seen a town, or even the poor village that constitutes their county-seat…. The women … are almost as rooted as the trees. We met one woman who, during the twelve years of her married life, had lived only ten miles across the mountain from her own home, but had never in this time been back home to visit her father and mother. Another back in Perry county told me she had never been farther from home than Hazard, the county-seat, which is only six miles distant. Another had never been to the post-office, four miles away; and another had never seen the ford of the Rockcastle River, only two miles from her home, and marked, moreover, by the country store of the district.”

When I first went into the Smokies, I stopped one night in a single-room log cabin, and soon had the good people absorbed in my tales of travel beyond the seas. Finally the housewife said to me, with pathetic resignation: “Bushnell’s the furdest ever I’ve been.” Bushnell, at that time, was a hamlet of thirty people, only seven miles from where we sat. When I lived alone on “the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of[Pg 24] Hazel Creek,” there were women in the neighborhood, young and old, who had never seen a railroad, and men who had never boarded a train, although the Murphy branch ran within sixteen miles of our post-office.

And that’s just Appalachia. What sorts of men and women do you think settled the Rockies or headed to the Yukon? Big, gregarious families that valued their connections to society at large?

Then there are the railroads. The video makes a big deal about the railroads being funded by the government, as proof that Americans weren’t “individuals” but part of some grand collectivist society.

Over in reality, societies with more collectivist values, like Pakistan, don’t undertake big national projects. In those societies, your loyalty is to your clan or kin group, and the operative level of social planning and policy is the clan. Big projects that benefit lots of people, not just particular kin networks, tend not to get funded because people do not see themselves as individuals acting within a larger nation that can do big projects that benefit individual people. Big infrastructure projects, especially in the 1800s, were almost entirely limited to societies with highly individualistic values.

Finally we have the genocide of the American Indians. Yes, some were definitely killed; the past is full of sins. But “You’re wrong, your self-image is wrong, and your ancestors were murderers,” is not a good way to introduce the topic.

It’s a pity the video was not good; the animation was well-done. It turns out that people have far more strident opinions about “Was Westward Expansion Just?” than “Is Pi Irrational?”

I also watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series, The Who Was? Show, based on the popular line of children’s biographies. It was an atrocity, and not just because of the fart jokes. The episode paired Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was depicted respectfully, and as the frequent victim of British racism. Franklin was depicted as a buffoon who hogged the spotlight and tried to steal or take credit for other people’s ideas.

It made me regret buying a biography of Marie Curie last week.

If your children are too young to read first-hand ethnographic accounts of Appalachia and the frontier, what do I recommend instead? Of course there are thousands of quality books out there, and more published every day, but here are a few:

A Child’s Introduction to The World

The Usborne Book of Living Long Ago: Everyday Life Through the Ages

What Your [X] Grader Needs to Know So far I like these, but I have not read them all the way through.

DK: When on Earth?

More important than individual resources, though, is the attitude you bring to the subject.

 

Before we finish, I’d like to note that “America” isn’t actually the society I feel the closest connection to. After all, there are a lot of people here whom I don’t like. The government has a habit of sending loyal citizens to die in stupid wars and denying their medical treatment when they return, and I don’t even know if the country will still exist in meaningful form in 30 years. I think of my society as more “Civilization,” or specifically, “People engaged in the advancement of knowledge.”

7 thoughts on “What IS “Social Studies”?

  1. I have a full collection of the “Nth Grader” books (both first and second editions) because, well, I’m weird that way?… The advantage as far as history/social studies goes is that the first edition goes til, well, 1990, give or take, and the second edition was written after the Core Knowledge Foundation had their curriculum more set, but that means the 6th grade history section cuts off somewhere around the early 20th century. Some people get very opinionated about the editions. There’s now a third edition, which is Common Core compatible, which I imagine probably sparks further debate, but whatever. (I pretty quickly stopped debating education topics once I started reading Common Core debates, mostly because I hated both sides, at least outside of a few better informed education blogs).

    Btw, there are also free downloadable materials at the Core Knowledge website. I haven’t looked closely at the history/geography ones, but I’m thinking about using some of the language arts ones.

    The Core Knowledge materials are what I’d call liberal-lite in terms of leaning: MLK is lionized, but you still have Washington and Jefferson et al as good guys. Even Columbus gets a fair shake. The philosophy is that having a shared national culture is a good thing, and I think there’s an implication that a bit of compromise on exact content is necessary. Some on the left will thing it’s too eurocentric, some on the right will think it’s too diverse (and there are the usual biographies that you can tell are there for reasons of quota…) but it’s something.

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    • Yeah, so far we’ve mostly been reading the folk tales and mythology sections, which the kids are really enthusiastic about. The science sections that I’ve looked at so far look fine. We just got What your 6th Grader Should Know, and after a cursory glance at the history section, I have some issues with it. Much like the science curriculum you mentioned before, the issue is more what gets left out than what is included. (Eg, I don’t think a discussion of European Colonialism is complete without a discussion of what the colonized peoples were like both before and after colonization, but I should emphasize this was just a cursory glance and I really need to just plain sit down with the books and read through the history sections.)

      I basically agree with the authors on the idea of shared cultural capital, as it gives everyone a common stock of metaphors and ideas they can easily reference in conversation. Of course, our shared cultural capital may now be Harry Potter and Star Wars. Ce la vie?

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  2. The best preparatory education I ever received in Social Studies was from my father’s copy of “The Riverside Anthology of Children’s Literature” 6th edition, that and having the Hobbit read to me when I was about 4-5. While lacking the explicitly “empirical” nature of many contemporary texts I’m convinced the books were instrumental in preparing me to understand the relationship between all those disparate subjects which amount to the “Great Conversation” you wrote of.

    After two thousand years, Aesop’s fables and the Bible might still be the best ways ever developed in the Western tradition to train our children to take part in that Great Conversation we so blithely call Social Studies.

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  3. Benjamin Franklin was a world famous serious scientist. His ideas about electricity are still used today. Ben was no buffoon or a lite weight. As an ambassador he made some mistakes in Britain but he made up for it by his stupendous success in France. Without him it’s possible that the French would have never helped us and the revolution would have failed.

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  4. In an otherwise woeful “social studies” type class I read an excellent book called “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” – travels of a British writer in Estes Park in Colorado in the late 1800s (forget exact dates).
    By that account, the Wild West definitely existed, including frontier towns, isolated families with strange religious practices, and outlaws.

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